My first exposure to France or anything French was meeting a boy named Julien when I was at the country club, hanging out by myself and getting sunburned like I always did. I was still a teenager and I texted my mom saying that I met a cute French boy.
Apparently, when I stopped texting her back and lost track of time, she thought that I meant old French “man” and thought I was kidnapped and was sold somewhere. Seriously – she called the police, the PNCC (our local traffic patrol), the hospitals nearby, and as soon as I got back to looking at my mobile phone, I must have had 30 new messages and 20 missed calls. There was already a search for me going on.
It was unforgettable and hilarious but I didn’t realize that starting then, the French culture would penetrate my life, whether I wanted it to or not. I’ve always been interested in other cultures ever since I became an exchange student, but I was always more of inclined towards the Spanish side of things. But in college and through surfing, I started making friends from France each year – some of them acquaintances, some I will never forget, and most I will forever be friends with. I took lessons in Alliance Française when I was getting sick of guessing what they were talking about when we would hang out. I realized that although how I said, Je m’apelle Elaine, sounded “cute” to them, it didn’t really get me far during a conversation. So I kept on learning the language, watched their movies, and had a slight idea of what it was like in France from the people I knew. Then one day, IFS (the Institute for Foreign Study), the exchange student company I’ve always been with, asked me to be one of the chaperones for the summer high school groups to France.
That was a dream come true. C’était une rêve qui se réalise. I was excited, scared, nervous and chillax at the same time and I felt like I already knew so much about the country even before going there, and yet, I also had no idea what to expect.
And the unexpected happened. As soon as we landed on the Charles de Gaulle airport, I had the strange feeling of knowing I was in a foreign land and being at home at the same time. It must have been because I’ve already been to Europe before, or I hung out a way fricken lot with my foreign friends, or that I’ve been studying French for a couple of years. But I was hearing French, breathing their air, taking in all the sights, and texting my friends that – Ohlalaaaa… I was finally there.
I lived in a small town south of Paris called Bondoufle with a couple I will never forget. They were pretty crazy but I love them all the same. Babeth was blonde, skinny and smoked like a chimney, but cooked the BEST food I’ve ever eaten in my life. If I have any appreciation for French cuisine or just good food in general, it would be because of her. Everyday for one month, she cooked something different – from épinards a la crème (creamed spinach) to barbecue et bernaise. We had appetizer, salad, the main meal, wine or rosé (I think they were trying to get me drunk everyday), strawberries and cream for dessert, chocolate, and cheese – LOTS of it. Each time! I’m not exaggerating. I must have said “Je vais grossir ici (I’m going to get fat here)” more times than I can remember. We would sit around for hours at a time during dinner, just talking and watching TV, and enjoying the good food and company. My host dad Roland, who always called me “ma grande” or “la belle” was 62 years old but was the youngest 60 year old I’ve ever met. He was a retired rockstar, with a studio downstairs and all the vintage guitars I don’t even know about. He sang to me while strumming on his old school Gibson and at that moment I thought, this is the coolest Frenchman in the world. They quickly made me feel like their own daughter and even at 23 years old, they kissed me four times a day: in the morning, before I left the house, when I got back, and before going to bed. And I must say, they give kisses on the cheek FOUR times each time.
The high school group I was chaperoning had French classes in the morning in Bondoufle, but in the afternoons, we had tours in the city of Paris. With them, I saw the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, climbed the Eiffel Tower, posed with the wax figures in Musée Grévin, walked until our feet hurt at the Chateau de Versailles, rode the crazy rides in Parc Asterix, pretended to be giants at France Miniature, ate in the McDonalds of Champs-Elysées, walked through the Arc de Triomphe, stared at the gargoyle sculptures outside the Notre Dame, climbed up the seemingly never-ending stairs of the Sacre Coeur, took a cruise along the Seine River, saw where the movie Amelie was filmed, visited tombstones as the Cemitiere du Père La chaise, shopped at H&M, and ate crepes and drank French coffee (phew!) Although I was a couple years older and that there is such a thing as an age gap, I did feel that I was hanging out with friends. I mean, I was talking about life and love and relationships with a 15 year old! I enoyed every second with them, even if it meant having to be the party pooper sometimes. There are things that I learned from them that I will always remember.
Paris, the capital of France and one of the most visited cities in the world, is known as the city of lights and romance, where Victor Hugo wrote his masterpiece, and the best place to find museums with the most famous artworks in history. But we already know that. Sure, everyone knows where Paris is, and I will always be impressed by all the architecture and the history one can find in that city. However, it’s the culture and the people I really truly fell in love with and got attached to, and that’s the reason why I totally agree with Ernest Hemingway when he said that, “If you have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go you will always carry it with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
Paris was full of life and I felt that anything could happen. A big drunk guy was spouting sonnets while my friends and I were eating our baguettes by the Fontaine St. Michel. Street performances or surprise acts inside the metro, even if the Parisians were too busy to care, captivated me. Those nameless artists put so much effort on what they would perform. People rushed in and out of the metro – some going through sorties (exits) without even blinking, while others clumsily fumbled through their pocket maps. I’ve also never been to a city so diverse before, and although I know France has all these immigration issues to deal with, I found it interesting to be eating Arabic food or listening to African musique in Western Europe. It made me feel like I wasn’t so out of place. A lot of times though, strangers asked me where I was from, and nobody ever got it right. They wondered if I was Hawaiienne or Tahitienne, and I always had to explain that, “Je suis Philippine (I am Filipina).”
Back in the Philippines, I first thought that French people were so different, that I would not be able to relate to them. That some are too snobby, too cultured, too passionate about politics. But the more I hung out with my friends back home, the more I realized that we really were just the same. They like taking pictures as much as we do (when they’re the foreigner at least). They also like making chismis (gossip), they have their own humor, and sometimes even get the most baduy (corny) jokes I give. We laugh at each other and ourselves. We talk about nonsense and sometimes about life and growing up and getting older.
In France, living with a French family and being with my friends in their element, I did see that things were a little bit different. Un peu. (A little).They did like talking about politics (hey, I was there during the elections), would rather speak French than English, and would always have baguettes wherever they go – be it in the car, walking on the streets, or while riding a bike. They put the bread right on top of the table (nope, no plate), like their croissants, and would always say Bof! Or Ba, Oui! Or Bien sur. I’ve acquired the pout they always give when they don’t know what to answer or say, and even the acquired taste for the smell of cigarette smoke. I noticed too that a lot of French people say they don’t like the Americans that much, and yet almost all the TV channels I saw from my room had American movies or TV series that were dubbed in French. (Then again, so does every part of the world).
I felt most ALIVE when I was in Paris with my friends. It’s when I felt like I was a local – one of them – that I absolutely soaked up the beautiful language and the culture – the joie de vivre. I felt it, spoke it, breathed it, lived it, dreamt with it. For moments at a time, I felt like I was a different person and just lived the moment. I was so happy to feel young and beautiful, to be alive, to be speaking French, to be in Paris. I loved hanging out and walking dans les rues de Paris (in the streets of Paris) with them because we had pictures with the artistic graffiti instead of taking the usual picture by the Eiffel Tower or the Notre Dame. Or we went to Starbucks – which they called Le Starbuck- even if they were telling me, “Ohhh Hélène… Ce n’est pas du café!” (Oh Elaine, it’s not coffee!) With them, I got lost in the streets, got off the wrong stop at the metro, watched the other tourists, took in the sunshine or walked through the rain, discovered what Leffe beer tastes like, and even got a little bit bourré.
In that city, I realized that one of life’s and travel’s greatest pleasures is getting to meet up again with old friends, especially ones that you haven’t seen in a long time. You see friendship surpasses time zones, distance, and differences. I saw one of my best friends in the world, met up with someone whose heart I once broke, had coffee with one who broke mine, ate lunch with a friend who took the train from London just to spend the afternoon with me, made new friends, and maybe almost fell in love with someone. People went out of their way just to see me and just to catch up for a little bit. I had friends who made a little reunion party so we could remember the good times in the Philippines and so that I could also have a memorable night in France. Others found it funny and amusing that I loooved being cold just so that I could wear my cute little coat. Someone took me to the Eiffel tower at night because I really wanted to see it, and then again to see it sparkle. Moments and memories with people like those are the ones that I will never forget.
If there’s one thing I’ve also learned about traveling or having friends from the country you’re visiting, it is that stereotypes don’t mean anything. They said French people are snobs and won’t care if you’re lost, but people were nice to me, even when I was lost and clueless and asking for directions (and no, I was not only asking help from cute single men). On some occasions, I conversed with random people and saw that that if you smile at them, they actually smile back. My host family prepared something for mon anniversaire (my birthday) and it is one of the sweetest and memorable ones I’ve ever had. I was taken cared of so well and I was treated with so much hospitality and love that it makes looking back on my days in France miss everything so much more.
It all feels like a dream now, a good dream. I look at my pictures and I wonder if I really am the girl on the photos. I’m waiting for the day that I can go back and visit.
A special person once told me that on whatever trip we go on, no matter how long we stay in a place we grew to love, we always find the time we had there too short. It’s true. That’s why it’s important to enjoy it all – to smile and be thankful for every second. CHERISH every experience. Talk to the people. Take pictures. Observe. Look outside the window. Eat everything and anything - or don’t mind being hungry. Kiss. Fall in love. Hold hands. Laugh.
Because who knows? One day, all you might have is a three-page travelogue trying to explain what you’d experienced but knowing that you’ve seen more than the pictures you’ve taken, met more people than you’ve mentioned, and experienced more than you can remember. As for me, all I hope for what I just wrote is that it will forever remind me of what it was like, for the first time, to fall in love with, and maybe in, Paris.